Renew, adapt to become relevant, Vincentian chief tells religious
By Rose Maria
Kochi: Religious life in the Catholic Church remains relevant and meaningful despite adversities and challenges, says the newly elected superior general of the Vincentian Congregation, a Kerala-based religious order working in several countries.
Father Sebastian Thundathilkunnel says a sizable number of his men are engaged in preaching ministry that has helped Catholics and others to rediscover the power of the Gospel and establish personal relationship with Christ.
The superior general shared his ideas and plans with Rose Maria of Matters India in a recent interview.
Congratulations for being elected superior general of the Vincentians. What were your thoughts when elected to head a vibrant Indian congregation for men?
I never wanted to be elected as the superior general. At the time of election I was confused and fearful. Then I realized it as a plan of God revealed through the synaxis members, and I accepted it, trusting in the divine providence.
What are your plans for the congregation? What is your top priority?
My role is to lead the congregation in unity and fraternity, being loyal to its spirit and mission. As the superior general, I have the duty of an overall supervision, promoting the renewal and adaptation to the needs of the modern times. Being the center of unity and coordination between the provinces, ashrams and members, I have to animate the spirituality and apostolic activities. As we expand our ministries to many places in homeland and abroad, we should not neglect to strive for our own perfection by practising the virtues which were in the words and deeds of Our Lord, and our heavenly patron St. Vincent de Paul.
Yours is a Kerala-based congregation, with members working all over the world. What is its charism? Why was it founded? Are those needs still relevant?
The Congregation was founded on November 20, 1904, at Thottakom, Kerala, by Fr. Varkey Kattarath, with the approval and encouragement of Mar Louis Pazheparampil, the first Vicar Apostolic of Ernakulam. It was based on the Common Rules of St. Vincent de Paul and on the model of the Congregation of the Mission, founded by him in France, in1625.
The spirit of the Congregation is the participation in the spirit of Christ, lived and recommended by St. Vincent – an intimate love to the Father, docility to the divine providence and a compassionate love of the poor. “To preach the Good News to the poor” (Lk.4: 18) is the motto of the Congregation. As visualized by St. Vincent, we strive to practise the five virtues of simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification and zeal for the salvation of souls. An ardent and compassionate love of the poor inspires the Vincentians to work hard and to do their best to improve the conditions of the poor. A whole-hearted commitment to the evangelization of the poor and their human and Christian advancement is the identifying mark and charism of the congregation.
The charism of the Congregation is realized by the preaching of the Word of God. Popular Mission is the specific form of preaching the Word of God undertaken by the Vincentians. It is a special type of retreat aimed at the renewal of parishes. We also undertake missionary works, as well as the educational, social and charitable apostolate in order to help the poor for their integral development. As we know, to live in simplicity and to work for the poor is an ever relevant theme, of which our present Pope Francis always speaks of.
What is the current status of your congregation – number of members, provinces, apostolates, places and countries of work?
At present the Congregation comprises of three provinces (Marymatha Province, Angamaly, St. Joseph Province, Kottayam, and St. Thomas Province, New Delhi), three dependent regions (Good Shepherd Region, Andhra Pradesh, Sacred Heart Region, East Africa and St. Xavier’s Region, Tamil Nadu) and two missions (St. Paul Mission, Maharashtra and Christu Jyothi Mission, Uttar Pradesh).
Our Congregation has 2 bishops, 535 priests, 1 brother and 165 professed seminarians. The members of the Congregation are serving today in the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Goa, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, and Uttar Pradesh. The members are active in other countries such as Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Germany, Italy, Kenya, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Peru, Scotland, Switzerland, Tanzania, Uganda and United States of America.
Vachanolsavam (Celebration of the Word) is a monthly publication of the Congregation for evangelization and re-evangelization in the Church and outside. It is published in English and in 7 other Indian languages, circulating hundreds of thousands copies. There are also many publications by the retreat centers, and books and CDs of many individual members of the congregation, used to spread the gospel message of love, faith and hope.
Do you plan to induct members from other regions, countries and cultures? What are the challenges you foresee for such a shift?
As the congregation is founded in Kerala, in Syro Malabar rite, most members belong to this group. But now the congregation is growing fast and we are becoming international. There are many members working abroad wutg centers in about 15 countries. We have already priests and seminarians from other states of India. Now we are recruiting seminarians from Africa too as we have houses and centers there. So far there is no problem of the diversity of the cultures. But we should be very careful not to give people from other cultures any negative feelings. Now we use English as the official language of communication and we have many common functions so that we could inter mingle with each other in a spirit of fraternity.
According to you what are the strengths of your congregation? What are the areas of improvement? What are the present challenges?
The strength of the congregation is its members. Our congregation is growing younger every year. More than half of the priests are ordained after 2004; that means, they are below 40 years old. They have a youth body and mind with zeal to work for the congregation in the name of the Lord. The internal challenge is that there is a tendency to be influenced by the modern world and its materialistic way of thinking. To keep up the original spirit of the founder in the changing world is a challenge of which we are aware of. Both the renewal and adaptations are needed to be relevant in all the ages and for all the people. The external challenge is the obstacles we face to work for the poor in the name of the Lord.
How relevant is religious life in modern world? What changes has your congregation made to adapt to modern world?
As we know, the origin of religious life in the early centuries was as a striving for personal perfection practising the evangelical counsels. They were running away from the world, renouncing all earthly wealth and natural affections. Their life was a life of prayer and living the vows. Later the monks did not refuse to undertake the care of the souls, and some of them undertook the education of children. Orders are known as contemplative, active or mixed orders. While the contemplative orders emphasized on a life of solitude and prayer, the active orders spend their energy in doing various charitable activities.
In the modern world there are more active religious congregations than the contemplatives. Vincentian Congregation gives importance to both prayer and activities, as they were practised by our patron St. Vincent de Paul. We have prayer and retreat centers, as well as charitable and mission works.
Religious life is always relevant. One may choose a congregation according to his talents and aptitudes. Realizing the thirst of the people for God, we now give more importance to preaching the word of God in the retreat centers and giving renewal retreats in the parishes. There are many groups of people and agencies to do social and charitable works. But all cannot be preachers. In many of the dioceses we are invited by the bishops to engage in the ministry of preaching than for any other activities. We accept it as an adaptation to the needs of the time.
How have the recent cases of clergy abuse of women and minors affected your congregation? What are the steps taken by your congregation to prevent such cases? Do you have a mechanism to deal with them?
By all means the rights of minors and women are to be protected. There should be no favourable compromise for the culprit, whoever he would be. The recent clergy abuse case is a reflection of what is happening in society. We know there are so many cases happening in society, in which many of the offenders are the close relatives of the victims. It shows the moral decadence of society. The reasons are to be founded out and there should be treatment to society. Individual punishments are not enough.
It has not affected our congregation at all. Still we are aware of the seriousness of the situation, and we educate our members to be careful and to keep away from even the possibility of accusation of such crimes The major archbishop has published the procedures, in tune with the directions given from Rome, to deal with such cases, if there is any.
Your congregation is credited with bringing spiritual awakening in the Church through charismatic retreat ministry? How do you assess this ministry? What are the checks and balance to ensure the ministry does not go beyond control?
Catholic Charismatic Renewal is a spiritual movement within the Catholic Church that incorporates aspects of both Catholic and charismatic practice. It places an emphasis on having a personal relationship with Jesus and expressing the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Perceptions of the Charismatic movement vary within the Catholic Church. Proponents hold the belief that certain charismata (a Greek word for “gifts”) are still bestowed by the Holy Spirit today as they were in Early Christianity, as described in the Bible. Critics accuse Charismatic Catholics of misinterpreting, or in some cases violating, Church teachings on worship and liturgy.
Actually, the official retreat of our congregation is popular mission retreats, conducted in the parishes. As a follow up, we invite people who are interested, to our retreat centres to spend more time in prayer. We have more than 50 retreat and prayer centers, and a good number of priests are engaged in preaching ministry. In those centers, the nature of retreats depends on the preachers, and need of the people. We don’t think that our ministry is going beyond control, since the regulations given by the bishops are accepted and followed. At present such retreat centers are run by the dioceses and parish priests too. It means that the positive side of charismatic retreats do good to the believers and to the whole church. The reasons of going some people to different sects are many and varied. Charismatic retreats need not be accused as the cause of it. On the contrary, the faith and spiritual life of many are firmed by such kind of retreats.
Kindly give some background about yourself? What prompted you to become a priest? Why did you choose this congregation? How do you look back at your priestly life?
I hail from a traditional Catholic family, engaged in agricultural works, from the diocese of Kanjirappally. Our ancestors were living in the diocese of Palai. I am the fourth among seven children. As my parents used to say, I was interested in study and prayer from the childhood onwards. I had the desire to become a priest while I was young, and the parents encouraged me for the same. When I was in high school, our parish was entrusted to the Vincentian congregation, and our priests were serving the parish named Umikuppa for about 15 years. When I was in class ten, the vocation promoter from our congregation came to preach a retreat for the students and I told him of my desire. He gave me admission to the seminary at Thrikkakara, Ernakulam.
Last year I celebrated the silver jubilee of my priestly ordination. I was in the field of formation for 12 years, in various seminaries. Five years I was in Rome for doctoral studies in spiritual theology. I was in the administrative team of Kottayam province for 8 years. I have written 7 books and many articles on spiritual subjects. I am happy and satisfied that I am a priest in the Vincentian Congregation. It is not because of the opportunities I got to study and travel abroad, nor because of any benefits I received, but because I feel that I am loved and accepted in the name of Jesus.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to think about these important questions, and to express myself through your online bulletin (www.mattersindia.com). Wish you all the best for the success of your works and life. God bless you.